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Our evening at Jia, a small alley-shaped cafe in Ponce City Market, was to have many deflating moments like this.
There were the Dan Dan noodles, for instance, which are usually such a winning intersection of slurpable noodles and eye-opening spicy sauce. Jia’s version arrived poorly assembled. Pale, half-naked noodles had been dumped into a bowl of chile-bright sauce that looked more sizzly than it tasted, then topped with a mound of ground pork, peanuts and scallions. Tossing and mixing did nothing to infuse the too-soft noodles with flavor and the pork crumbles were tough and nubbly.
A braised fish in red chile oil also felt like a bait and switch. Though immersed in a fiery red broth, the small, curled fish fillets were as ineffectual as sea foam. One can only imagine the mood of the animal that would become this flavorless and textureless. I pictured it at the bottom of a tank, too dispirited to swim.
Our server, by contrast, was harried. She brought rice only after a couple of requests, when several saucy must-have-rice dishes were already on the table.
We had to ask for chopsticks as well.
And as for our flowery tureen of shrimp dumpling soup, it sat there merely looking pretty for many long minutes before bowls and spoons were finally delivered — upon request. (Ultimately the soup was disappointing and not just because the personality-free broth was no longer piping hot. It was the skeevy minced shrimp balls paired with spongy tofu blocks and too-large wedges of gelatinous winter melon that did it in.)
Of course, without that Lazy Susan, this feast was bound to turn into a DIY affair anyway. When some of your dishes arrive still bubbling and others are bathed in the kind of bright red oil that makes a dry cleaner shriek in horror, constant passing is not only drudgerous, it’s treacherous. I resorted to just getting up and prowling with my plate to get to the dishes I wanted.
So here’s what warranted a walk — if not a run — around the table:
- The Kung Pao Chicken was well-executed and perfectly tasty, even if the presence of walnuts instead of peanuts was jarring when nothing else about this Szechuan classic veered from standard.
- Shan City Pork Belly, a toss of meat squares, potatoes and chiles served winningly in a little wok, was a lot of fun, especially if your idea of fun is floral-scented Szechuan peppercorns attacking your tongue, rendering it numbed, tingling and exquisitely pained. The thick potato wedges had super-hot, crunchy crusts and fluffy interiors. And the pork belly, caramelized into little briquettes, were a flavorful gnaw.
- Garden Duck gives your spice-addled mouth a little respite, but far from a boring one due to the palpable and pleasant aroma of smoke, the lovely unctuousness of mushrooms and the fresh crunch of leeks.
- Batons of dry fried eggplant featured sweet, molten veg inside a light, crisp crust. The fries were dusted with a zingy spice mix and tossed with fragrant herbs. Delightful.
- Classic Mapo Tofu, silken and subtle, paired well with salty black beans and an abundance of searing red sauce.
- Yes, the meat on the Wuxi Ribs was stringy and gamy, but I did enjoy the lick-your-fingers caramelized sauce coating the bones.
Jia is owned by the team behind Marietta’s legendary Tasty China. The king of that team was once Peter Chang (sometimes spelled Cheng), a famously charismatic and mysterious chef known for launching restaurants then disappearing to the dismay and delight of his cult of fans. Even though Jia has a new chef named Joe Huang, only “Cheng” is mentioned on its website.
And yet, Jia seems to be suffering from his absence. The dining space is more than dim and diminutive — it’s a little demoralizing. (The expansive outdoor courtyard is much more appealing when the weather cooperates.)
And when it comes to the cuisine, all the splashy hot sauces feel like makeup on an ordinary face, rather than accouterments that synthesize and celebrate their dishes’ ingredients.
A restaurant with Peter Chang’s legacy, and one in the highly competitive food playground that is Ponce City Market, shouldn’t leave you thinking, “This would be fine as takeout with some Netflix.”
But that was my takeaway from Jia. There are both classic and creative dishes here, but few that felt truly inspired. Maybe promised new dishes from Huang will change that. But for now, Jia leaves my mouth tingling but my heart a little flat.
Jia. 675 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E. (Ponce City Market), Atlanta. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 470-343-2881, www.jiaatlanta.com/index.php.